Obituary: Duncan Wood

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Wherever the craft of television comedy is discussed Duncan Wood's name will be mentioned as a pioneer and innovator. First, as a BBC producer, he was responsible for shows such as Hancock's Half Hour and Steptoe and Son, and later, as Head of Light Entertainment at Yorkshire Television from 1973, his credits included Rising Damp, starring Leonard Rossiter.

Wood was born in Bristol and had already done some work as a sound modulator for the BBC there by the age of 21, when I first met him on board the Georgic, a troopship taking National Servicemen, which we both were, to the Middle and Far East. After forming a ship's orchestra, he playing the trumpet and I making a misdirected stab at guitar and vocals, we disembarked at Singapore, where he developed his liking for curries. His commanding officer was David Jacobs.

Some 10 years later, having lost touch with Wood, I turned up at the BBC Television Centre in Wood Lane, west London, as a fledgling producer/director, and in the bar there was welcomed by a portly, balding mandarin who bought me a drink and showed me a dog-eared photograph of two slim youths in front of a row of palm trees.

"Who are they?", the man asked.

"I've no idea," I replied.

"They're us, you fool," Duncan Wood snarled, for it was him, and it was us. He had heard that I was going to work at the centre and was determined to be the first in with a greeting.

By this time, in the early Sixties, Wood was a well-known name in the world of television, having already produced and directed the television series which succeeded the radio programme Hancock's Half Hour, written by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson; and also the equally timeless Steptoe and Son, written by the same pair. Wood was responsible for the first colour comedy programme, The World of Beachcomber, starring Spike Milligan, and directed the first Royal Variety Performance in 1962, at the London Palladium. His name appeared on countless other comedy shows, many of which are currently being repeated, becoming one of the BBC's most respected television producers with awards and Baftas to his credit.

In 1972 he became Head of Comedy at the BBC, before leaving the Corporation in 1973 to take over as Yorkshire Television Head of Light Entertainment, a new post created especially for him. There he was responsible for, among other successes, the setting up of Yorkshire's comedy jewel in the crown, Rising Damp, which made the incomparable Leonard Rossiter a household name. He was also responsible for Only When I Laugh (with James Bolam), In Loving Memory (starring Thora Hird) and game shows including Winner Takes All and the long-running 3-2-1. He rose to become Controller of Entertainment Programmes and retired in 1984.

Although the word "executive" now carries little or no kudos, I remember Wood's authoritative behaviour in his position as executive producer on a show which he employed me to direct. I had finished recording a scene which involved the American female lead and completed all her necessary work in the show. She asked to see the scene played back to her on the studio floor. I explained to her that, as we were fast running out of recording time, she might wait until we had finished recording and then I'd be glad to show it to her. She sat down on a chair and refused to allow us to continue until she had seen and approved her work. The assistant director telephoned Wood and requested that he come to the set and straighten things out.

Almost immediately he was there, listened to the problem in a quiet corner, and, a couple of minutes later, gently but firmly led the actress to her dressing room to discuss things, allowing us to finish the recording in the allotted time. Later the actress left to catch her plane, telling me that there was no necessity to re-run the scene. She was very happy. I never found out what steps Wood had taken to bring about her new-found sense of well- being but I was told it involved a sharp telephone call to her agent in Los Angeles.

Duncan Wood represented a type of television producer/ director that is fast disappearing. He was carefully selective, knowing exactly the effect for which he was aiming. He was a meticulous planner too - one had to be in those days when programmes and audiences were live. He could judge almost to the second how much audience laughter and reaction time should be added to a script (this was before the laughter was "canned") and knew when additional dialogue and cuts were needed to make up or save time. When directing, everybody knew who was in charge.

Wood was rather a solitary man: it was hard to believe he had been married and divorced twice. He owned up to having two main vices in his life, both from Scotland, whisky and golf.

Duncan Wood, television producer: born Bristol 24 March 1925; Head of Comedy, BBC television 1972-73; Head of Light Entertainment, then Controller, Entertainment Programmes, Yorkshire Television 1973-84; twice married (marriages dissolved); died London 11 January 1997.